Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Guest Post: Breaking Free of Being the Perfect Child

Today's guest post is by Paul Taylor. This is the fourth post in which a writer recounts his or her own experience in a family with a problematic history, as well as its aftermath. It illustrates a couple of themes of my blog very well: a family role that must be played by a member – or else - and the existential horror and despondency people feel when they try to break away from it. His criticism of cognitive psychotherapy for this sort of problem is also right on.

It is hard being the perfect child. According to my family, I was born perfect. I was quiet and obedient and always willing to help out. From the time I was very small my family relied on me to be the good, responsible child. Although I was not too much older than my siblings and cousins I was relied on to make sure they were safe, happy, and cooperative too.

As I got older and some of the extended family moved away my responsibilities changed. I was now supposed to go to school and do all my work without complaint or question, answering any inquires about what I was learning with an in depth explanation. Then I was supposed to help my younger brother complete his school work while also teaching him what he missed in class due to his ADD. After that came helping with chores like ironing, laundry, dishes, yard work, vacuuming etc. That I was also supposed to do without complaint for as long as it took. 

Every member of the family had set chores and I was expected to not only do mine, as quickly and quietly as possible, but also “help out” with everyone else’s. That meant doing the dirtiest, hardest or most complex jobs while they watched and shook their heads –feeling helplessly confused all the while.

If I finished everything I was then expected to have “family time” which consisted of sitting around the television, watching something my brother and I were not interested in. I was supposed to keep him quietly entertained so we could “be a family.” If, by chance, there was time left over before bed I snuck in reading a chapter or two of my books, which were my only escape from reality.
When I got into my teen years and nothing changed, I began to become uncomfortable with the arrangement. 

I had not made many friends outside of school before then, of course, due to my packed schedule. When I attempted to make plans with friends and let my family know ahead of time, some emergency inevitably came up: a last minute project, a chore that had to be done RIGHT NOW, or just a guilt trip of “not being with your family.”After a few attempts I decided it was not worth the effort and went back to my routine.

Finally when I reached my twenties I realized that my life style was not normal. I started to try to pull away. I knew that I wanted to become my own person and not just the person they told me I was. I wanted to make choices based on my own needs and desires instead of doing what would make them happy or what would not get me in trouble with my family. It was very hard for me to break out of the thinking patterns that had formed from my many years as the perfect child. 

I constantly had to remind myself that I was not responsible for anyone else’s happiness or emotional welfare. I could not change anyone no matter how much I did for them or how much I loved them. In fact I was only allowing them to continue to suffer because they never had to grow as long as I picked up their slack.

At first I planned to move out. I started to squirrel away money for an apartment and shopped around near my work during lunch to see what I could afford. Then a few weeks before I decided I would make my move, a family member had to have emergency surgery.

Well, of course I couldn’t leave then. There was an actual sick person to take care of; the house had one less person to help with clean up, and the person that did not work and stayed home needed a break in the evenings. It was only reasonable.

Six months went by and I decided that I would take a smaller step towards being independent. I planned on going on a trip by myself for two weeks. I would use the money I had saved to pay for the gas, and I had a tent so I could just go on a road trip and camp along the way. I got permission from my work and was all ready to go. I decided to give my family two weeks’ notice so that they could adjust to the idea.

Bad idea.

As I started to pull away, my family teamed up against me. From telling me I was wrong in my thinking to guilt trips to outright anger and abuse, they piled on the difficulties and tried to make me conform to their way of thinking; the way that was easiest for them. I fought back for a while but eventually got worn out, and found myself being sucked back in.

I postponed my trip indefinitely.

However, this time I was aware of what was going on around me. I felt like I was living in another world. I watched in horror as I went through the same day-to-day routine of being the perfect child and cleaning up the messes they left behind. I felt disconnected from reality and just went through my days with a kind of hopeless, formless, pointless movement. Somehow I thought that as long as my body was moving I was still all right and functioning.

What I did not realize is that I had become seriously depressed. I had been depressed in the past but had repressed the dark times in my life to the point where I did not even remember them happening. I tried to function on auto-pilot without my own conscious approval. However, this time around the auto pilot would not engage. I had become too self-aware to let my brain slip into a waking coma.

It got to the point where I would be driving and would consider just letting go of the wheel and seeing what happened. After all, it did not matter one way or the other. What was the point of living like this?

After having several similar thoughts, I sought professional help. Although it did help to have my irrational thinking pointed out to me, it did not help in the sense of giving me something concrete to do.

“Move out,” they said, “Get away.”

Well, that is all well and good for someone to say, but the practicality of it was beyond me. I had been beaten down by the combined forces of my family. From bills to pay to broken down cars to guilt trips and attacks of hysteria I had so much to deal with that even planning a way out was beyond me.

I checked out. I really did. I went to work every day and somehow managed to crank out my job with no brain power. I got home and took care of the chores and bills and things that needed to be done. I chatted pleasantly about the weather, feigned listening attentively to problems, and worked steadily until it was time to fall into bed and start the whole day over again.

Weekends and weekdays were indistinguishable except for the physical activity required. It was much more restful at work, sitting at a desk, then at home running errands, cleaning up messes, and trying to pretend everything was fine.

Hopeless does not even begin to describe it.

I tried to express to my family why I was so angry, or stressed, or just listless. Their solution:

“Just stop thinking so much. Everything will work out.”

Eventually I got fed up with the whole thing. Working with friends I came up with a way to get out of the house. One day I just moved, taking only a couple of bags of clothes and tossing them in the trunk of my car I left.

After the meltdown, things changed. I was still the ‘perfect child’ in some ways but I learned the benefits of boundaries and getting away from people. The physical distance helped me to create a personal space where I could feel safe and grow. It was still very hard for a long time but it has gradually gotten better. My family still attempts guilt trips and manipulation but now that I have time to see things as they really are I can resist them and deal with them in a healthier way.

Author Bio:

Paul Taylor started which offers an aggregated look at those sites to help families find sitters and to help sitters find families easier than ever. He loves writing, with the help of his wife. He has contributed quality articles for different blogs & websites.


  1. "After having several similar thoughts, I sought professional help. Although it did help to have my irrational thinking pointed out to me, it did not help in the sense of giving me something concrete to do."

    I can totally identify with this. That's one of the reasons I'm going elsewhere with my therapy.

  2. Another good post, I can't tell you how many people (therapists and laypeople) have told me I just need to "get my own place".